I lose my motivation when my boss is out of the office

A reader writes:

I’m excited to be sending in my first question! I love your blog and find it both informative and thoroughly entertaining. You have a very compassionate but to-the-point attitude that I really appreciate :).

I am a recent grad who started work in November 2015, and I work in a three-person office that is the subsidiary of a larger company. Because of the small team size, I take care of almost all admin and accounting related tasks, and I enjoy the autonomy and foreign language practice that comes with my work. However, the office does get quite busy with only three people, and I am often alone in the office during exhibitions and sales meetings when my boss and the sales manager leave town.

I would love to tell you that I am a diligent worker bee and don’t take advantage of my freedom, but that would be a pretty bold lie. I find that when my boss is in the office, I am working consistently throughout the day, but when he is out, I seem to lose track of the hours and get very little done. Part of that is due to the lack of work inflow, but a lot of it is my dawdling.

I want to request a one-on-one with my boss to address this problem because I feel like its getting out of hand. While I get the essential tasks of my role done, from January to April alone my boss was gone for 25/79 workdays, and I am afraid that I am getting too accustomed to dawdling at work (I am way too comfortable using my work computer for Youtube and a host of other non-work tasks).

What is the best way to frame this conversation with my boss in a way that doesn’t paint me as too unreliable? Do you have suggestions for me, or things I can bring up with my boss so he doesn’t have to babysit me during important out of town meetings, but can still supervise my work?

I wrote back to this letter-writer and asked: “When he’s away, is the issue that you’re less motivated to do the work without supervision, or that there actually isn’t enough work to do? (Two very different things!) Also, can you tell me more about what you’d like to ask your boss to do?”

The answer:

It’s both! But the bigger issue I think is that I am less motivated to do work. I feel like if I were more motivated I could try and find projects to work on.

In some sense, I would like to ask for more work or responsibilities. However, when my accounting workload gets heavy (tends to be at the end/beginning of the month), having too many tasks tends to be overwhelming, and it can be hard to think up of tasks for me to do as an admin when no one else is here. He has thrown at me before vague larger project ideas (“do you know anything about marketing?” “do you know anything about designing websites?”) which gave me some idea of long-term major projects I could pursue, but I have a hard time getting started since they seem less urgent and more lofty as goals. (Upon writing this email out, I think that maybe it’s time I pursue that online coding class that I have been eyeing to try and make myself useful…)

I think I wanted primarily to bring to his attention that I’m afraid I’m wasting too much time when unsupervised, and if he had ideas on how to lessen that, or if he wanted to do something to prevent that.

I don’t think you should tell him that you’re unmotivated and wasting time when he’s not there. That’s too much like announcing “you need to worry about my work ethic,” and that’s not an impression you want your boss to have. It would also be asking him to fix something that managers rightly look to you to manage on your own — your own initiative and work ethic. That stuff is on you, and asking your boss to manage it for you is going to be awfully close to “I’m not ready to work independently.”

However! Your instinct is ask for more is a good one. Because your workload gets heavier during some periods, it sounds like ideally you’d have a slate of “as time allows” projects — things that aren’t time-sensitive but are more long-term and which you could turn to when work is slower. Sometimes it can put work on a manager’s plate to have to figure out what those projects should be, and your manager might not have time to do that right now, so if you can take the initiative to propose a few and get him to sign off on them, that might get you started. The coding class sounds like it could be a great idea, and I’d also follow up on his questions about marketing and websites — ask him if there’s anything specific he was thinking about there, and say that you’d be glad to take on more work in those areas.

Of course, once you have those projects, you might still be facing the same motivational issues when your boss is out of the office. And long-term, non-time-sensitive projects can align all too well with a tendency to procrastinate.

So you’re going to have to tackle that one head-on, and without your boss’s help. As for how to do that … can you get into a mindset where you’re driven by the sheer joy of accomplishment and getting things done? (If you can get into that headspace, it can turn into a delightful pathology of its own, and then you will never sleep. Ask me how I know.) Or, sometimes thinking about your reputation can be sufficient motivation — i.e., what kind of professional reputation you want, and especially what kind of reputation you don’t want. Hell, related to that last part, fear of losing your reputation (or your job, for that matter) can be a good motivator when nothing else is working.

Also, if this feels too huge to overcome right now, it might help to know that one you establish new habits and make them your M.O. for a while, they will eventually take over and feel natural to you. Good luck!

{ 111 comments… read them below }

  1. Kasia*

    I also have this problem and I’ve found that telling myself the day will go by 100 times faster if I actually do work is a pretty great motivator for me. Especially on Fridays.

    1. De Minimis*

      So true…one of my worst work experiences was one where there was literally zero to do for months and I just sat there and websurfed [after making some attempts to find work ] and waited to be let go towards the end of the fiscal year.

      1. Koko*

        Chrome has a feature where if you open a new tab and then enter a URL that matches a tab that’s already open, it will just flip you to that tab instead of loading the same page in a new tab.

        I know this because sometimes when I don’t have enough to do, I find myself trying to load Facebook when I’m already on Facebook. Nothing says, “You’ve reached the end of the Internet,” quite like that.

        1. Audiophile*

          Mine doesn’t do that, it just duplicate it. Must be a settings feature I haven’t turned on.

      2. Anxa*


        I feel like I just got to work an hour or two ago, but really it’s been 5 hours and my day is almost gone.

        I’ve had jobs where I literally sat at a gate, and while it was pretty awesome to get paid to do something so easy and low-stress, the clock watching was agony.

  2. Elizabeth West*

    Good suggestion about the rainy day projects–I find that when my team is out, I often end up with nothing to do myself. So it helps to have something else to work on. When I was still attending school, I was allowed to do homework during slack periods. If you really don’t have much to do, and you want to take the online coding course, maybe your boss will approve that, especially if you could use it on a future work project.

    But it’s important that you do these during truly slow periods; if you can’t get all your other work done, it’s unlikely you’ll be assigned extra projects.

  3. Kyrielle*

    OP, I am so glad to see you trying to address this and not just letting it slide. :)

    As an aside, if you like gamification approaches, you could use something like Habitica to keep yourself going – hey look, you get in-‘game’ rewards for marking items off your to-do list. :)

    1. MommaTRex*

      Another idea is to reward yourself. Put money in a jar that saves up for something you want but seems frivolous.

      1. Charlotte Collins*

        My mother just went with the more direct: “If you’re bored, I can find you something to do.”

        But I do agree that the LW should ask for projects that can be done when the other staff is out. As long as she’s getting all her work done, that’s important, but I think that work will be easier to do if she has something else interesting to work on in the meantime.

        1. Amadeo*

          Yes, that was my mother’s line too. We learned very quickly to never tell her that we were bored.

          Totally agreed with all of these comments too. My workday goes so much faster when I’m busy all day and having little to nothing to do is often harder on my energy levels than having too much to do.

        2. Mallory Janis Ian*

          That’s what my parents always told us, too. I used the same thing on my kids, because lord knows I didn’t want to spend my summer listening to them whine, “I’m boooored!” A few times of me finding them something to do, such as mowing the lawn or cleaning the kitchen, cured them of that for at least a day or two until they would forget and whine again.

        3. Phyllis B*

          Charlotte Collins, my adult children and I were just discussing this very thing the other day. They all agreed, they never wanted me to find them “something to do.” Now I hear two of them saying that to their kids. :-)

    1. CMT*

      This is totally true, but it’s not *always* on the employee to make sure they are busy. One of the reasons I’m pretty miserable at my job is that there isn’t ever enough work for me to do. Obviously there will be down times in every job when an employee should try to go find a project to work on, but I don’t think that’s really sustainable if that’s half the time you’re at your job. Basically, I think at some point the responsibility shifts to the employer.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Yep I can totally relate. My work is crazy busy certain times of the month and the rest of the time I’m just sittin here twiddling my thumbs (aka on Aam). I made the mistake early on of asking a higher up (boss’s boss) for more that wasn’t at that busy time of month and I ended up with more at that time! My one manager is aware but my other one is the one that needs to approve projects and she’s been buried and had no time to meet with me (barely) the past year and a half. The last time we met was over six months ago and I had a whole list of ideas that I didn’t even get to go over with her because she said we have x y and z coming up but those things have come and gone and they were hardly projects, more like short term tasks.

      2. Lindsay J*

        Ugh, this.

        I have maybe 4-6 hours worth of work in a 40 hour work week. Adding to that, a lot of the things I used to do in old jobs – write SOPs, training manuals, streamline processes, etc – I can’t do because of the way the industry is regulated. (Basically there already is a document that outlines how to do everything, and changing it requires approval from people way above me and possibly an outside government agency or an outside manufacturing company).

        Additionally, I can’t even help my coworkers because the work they do requires schooling and a certification I don’t have.

        Mostly, I sit on the internet and read askamanager, Reddit, and Facebook. And I recently started CodeAcademy and some Coursera courses. I’ve asked my boss (who is off-site) if there is anything I can do and I’ve basically gotten told “just look busy).

        I feel so useless. :( I get a lot of satisfaction from doing a good job and feeling useful and I don’t get any of that here. I wish someone – anyone – would come up with something for me to do.

        1. Emma Peel*

          I’m in a similar place and it’s so demoralizing, depressing. I tried for the longest time to make projects for myself, but it’s not a culture that encourages or rewards that on any level (not even a “hey, nice job”).

    2. AVP*

      a friend who worked at a restaurant told me that her manager’s phrase for this was, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean!”

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        I always heard that in restaurant and retail work: “If there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean!”

        1. Megs*

          Somehow, every time I heard that phrase my mind translated it to “I don’t understand how difficult it is to stand for 8 hours straight, maybe you should punch me in the face!” instead.

          1. Stranger than fiction*

            Haha me too. especially when it was a manager that spent all their time flirting and drinking on the job and never ran food themselves unless a bigwig or regional was in.

  4. KG*

    ‘Of course, once you have those projects, you might still be facing the same motivational issues when your boss is out of the office. And long-term, non-time-sensitive projects can align all too well with a tendency to procrastinate.’

    This. If the projects aren’t important to your boss and you don’t have accountability to her to get them done in any particular time frame this probably won’t help the issue. You could argue that the nature of your job is very feast or famine and that it’s not the end of the world if you have a few slow days mid month.

    1. KG*

      I would add that the exception to this would be if the long-term projects were genuinely interesting to you. You could take your slow time as an opportunity for professional development.

      1. animaniactoo*

        Eh. The nature of my business is feast or famine these days, I’m currently in feast, but having gone through the famine stretches – it’s really not okay to let yourself do that much procrastinating during the famine times. You have to find *something* to do that is worth the company paying you for your time. Or at least most of it. It’s hard to lose the “goofing off” mentality when you get back to feast, and eventually it will catch up to you in other ways too. You want to avoid internalizing the idea that 1/3 famine time is okay to spend mostly goofing off.

        That’s why I suggested LW assigning deadlines to themself on this kind of stuff. So that you are doing *something* even if it’s not the most exciting something. Even if these projects aren’t the most interesting, they are what the company appears to need, and therefore that is where LW should be investing some of their time. Unless they can come up with another proposal for the boss of something they see that looks more interesting to them and get the boss’ sign-off on it.

        1. KG*

          ‘You have to find *something* to do that is worth the company paying you for your time.’ I think this depends a lot on the nature of the job. The company is paying her to complete certain responsibilities, it’s not exactly a requirement that everyone needs to figure out how to maximize their workload themselves. If she’s doing all the work that is required of her then she is earning her paycheck.

          A lot of people struggle with being accountable to themselves only, and assigning yourself a deadline that your boss doesn’t care about and won’t hold you accountable to won’t work for everyone. I personally had a very very slow first job out of university and my boss knew it and he wasn’t particularly concerned with keeping me busy. I made up a few projects for myself (re-organizing our archives, creating manuals, some professional development stuff online, but eventually trying to keep myself busy became really draining.

  5. Jane*

    I wonder if another route to improving your motivation would be in learning better project and time management skills?

    If your activities are vague, without time-bound and incremental goals, it can be hard to know where and when to start, how to prioritize, and to feel accountable to accomplishing them. There are a lot of time management and project management tools around the web (Lifehacker loves reviewing to-do list apps and work styles, for example), so attempting to organize yourself with one of these processes may help you re-examine the work you do and create your own accountability system outside of your boss’s oversight.

  6. KarenD*

    I am a serial procrastinator. Daily deadlines are my best friend, but I also have big projects that I need to work on concurrently.

    One of the things that really works for me is making a punchlist with very specific tasks – things that I can expect to cross off in a relatively short period of time. This does a few things. It breaks big, over-time tasks into smaller bites that I can assign my own deadlines to. It forces me to organize my thoughts about how I’m going to tackle those big tasks. And crossing items off the list (I put my daily stuff on there too) gives me a rewarding little surge of accomplishment.

    1. Charlotte Collins*

      Yes! I love my to-do list that’s part of my online calendar. (The only good thing about Outlook…) Anything I missed from the day before shows up in red, and it feels so good to not have anything in my list at the end of the day. (You can set up recurring tasks, too.)

    2. TootsNYC*

      I also wanted to suggest something as simple as a to-do list.

      BUT….they can still be not enough, so….

      *vary the list. Put different sorts of things on there (some cerebral, some very tangible, the way plumbing and rearranging files is tangible), and make sure one of them is sort of fun.

      * break stuff way, way down.

      *make it really visible, and cross things off. A whiteboard, w/ fat writing, etc.

      * put a reward in the middle of the list

      Also this thought: Sometimes you need to shake things up. So, music one day (if it’s not disturbing to others). Checklist another day. Game mindset another day.

      And watch out forgetting sidetracked by only small things; make sure some of those small things are actually components of some bigger-picture goal or responsibility.

      1. Procrastinator*

        You mention music, which really helps me. For me, I have not always been in positions where it was acceptable to have headphones on so the opportunity to do so while I work is a treat. Beyond that, I seem to really be able to focus on work and not putz around online when I have music on. I think mainly because it drowns out the background noise and helps with boredom. It also helps with stress, and sometimes my anxiety about a project is what causes the procrastination in the first place.

    3. Honeybee*

      YES! I’m a procrastinator but I also respond really well to deadlines and to-do lists. So I bought a (paper) weekly calendar with a page where I can write down all of my to-dos, to-schedules, to-emails, etc. and check them off as they get done. I also plan out my longer-term projects with shorter-term deliverables that I can get finished in a week or less. There is something oddly addictive about checking things off a to-do list/marking things complete/meeting a deadline. And you’re right, it does force me to organize my thoughts and ultimately turn out a better product.

  7. animaniactoo*

    OP, one thing you might want to think about is the idea of assigning yourself your own deadlines for these side projects that have no urgency.

    Your best bet is probably to break it down into small “right in front of you” goals. By X date, I will have 3 layout concepts for front page done. By Y date, I’ll have gathered all final images with proposed alternates. etc. etc.

    That gives you pieces that are big enough to be making significant progress, while small enough to be scheduled around your accounting work. And it gives you something to work against, rather than the nebulous “sometime…” It also gives you stuff that you can bring to your boss for review at points so he can see what you’ve done with the suggestions he’s thrown at you and you can make sure that what you’re doing aligns with what he’s looking for.

    1. KathyGeiss*

      This works for me. If you need an added push, tell your boss about the deadlines.

      E.G. “When things are slow, I’m going to work on Project X. Looking at the calendar, I anticipate I’ll be done y part of X by this date. I’ll give you an update then.”

  8. Bookworm*

    OP, I don’t know what your computer situation is like at work, but if you have a browser that allows for extensions and add-ons, you may want to look into blocking tempting sites.

    I use Chrome and have a newsfeed eradicator extension – so no Facebook news feed – as well as Stayfocused, which limits the amount of time I can spent on procrastinating sites – there’s a little red button ticking down for each minute I’m on AskAManager as we speak ;). I like Stayfocused because it still allows for a certain amount of time on those sites, but limits it so it doesn’t get out of hand.

    Sure, I can get around those extensions by using incognito mode or another browser, but I find that the seconds it takes me to decided that I’m going to open another window is usually enough to refocus.

    The dangerous moments are the ones where we’re in between tasks and need to recalibrate. Where you’re sitting down, staring at the computer and thinking, what next? Then, as Alison said, a lot of this comes down to habit, and sometimes, like walking into the kitchen and opening the fridge without remembering why, our fingers just type in the Facebook url….And once you’re sucked in, you’re sucked in. So any little barriers you can put in place are pretty helpful, because they force your mind to consider what you’re doing next instead of just piloting.

    1. Jane*

      Yes, I want to second these suggestions! Facebook, youtube, and other procrastinating and personal sites are banned for me at work– by myself, because I get sucked in and quickly turn unprofessional when viewing them (unmotivated, sneaky, distracted, casual, etc). Accessing these sites wastes tons of time, makes me a zombie, and makes me ache for home– where I’ll probably just access these sites, too.

      I found I needed a set of “professional distractions” that I access during slow times or when my brain needs a break but which still keep me in the work frame of mind: news sites, relevant research publications (I keep a “to read” folder of PDFs related to my work since my field has a lot of time-sensitive new research), futzing with my to-do list, backburner fun projects, cleaning my desk or organizing my computer, walks around the office or to the cafe, online courses related to my work, printed books and publications so I can get away from the screen, answering long-forgotten emails, research black holes, etc. These can be just as happily mind-numbing as Facebook, but they keep me within the work realm and usually have the effect of inspiring some useful thought or perhaps even action. They make me feel like I’m moving forward with my career even when my job can get somewhat… deadended.

      But yes– stay off Facebook at work! If for no other means that if a manager sees you on it, there goes their respect for your work ethic, even if you had nothing else to do at the time!

      1. Koko*

        I do the same thing when I need a break. I will surf Facebook, Amazon, Redfin, and other pure pleasure sites only during lunch. But I try to take a 10-minute break about once an hour (on average – I don’t stop if I’m “in the zone”), and I use those 10-minute breaks to read industry news, AAM, and whitepapers, view on-demand webinars, or just spend some time on housekeeping tasks like filing email or updating my progress/to-do list (adding/removing items, breaking down long-term projects into smaller near-term tasks, re-prioritizing to reflect updated deadlines or importance).

      2. Tau*

        That sounds like me. I stopped using those blocking sites when I realised that by using them I was sort of… giving myself mental permission to circumvent them? Because I changed the focus from “I don’t want me to visit this site” to “this extension will not allow me to use this site” and I very quickly worked out ways around those. Instead, I just forbid myself to visit any non-work-related site when I’m at work. My only sort-of-exception is Stackoverflow, which I guess is my “professional distraction”, and I keep a careful eye to make sure that isn’t getting out of hand. Facebook, AAM, Sudoku, anything else – nada.

        The way I see this is that some people can manage to do a minor amount of procrastination and still be happy and productive overall and not get sucked in. I am not one of those people. It sounds like you are also not one of those people, OP. I know the temptation of “do a *little bit* of procrastination and work the rest of the time” is great, but for me the only real option was to not even let myself start.

        (It helps that I’ve had some tastes of how bad the procrastination black holes can get – my PhD was a nightmare on this front – which gives me the motivation to say Never Again.)

      3. Honeybee*

        My go-to when my brain needs a break is to take a quick walk around our campus, maybe to go grab a coffee from another building. Sometimes I’ll go chat with a co-worker briefly if someone is free (our office is really social, and our offices have glass windows and doors so you can see when someone is on the phone or meeting with someone and when they’re not). But walking helps me get a little exercise during my day and also helps me clear my head. That’s why I tend to wear low-heeled comfortable shoes to work.

    2. TootsNYC*

      our fingers just type in the Facebook url

      Yes! I found that something as simple as deleting all my cookies helped me redirect from the website I shouldn’t be spending time on.

    3. The IT Manager*

      Even if you can’t make use of an extension, I recommend you ban certain sites for yourself. Facebook and youtube (except for the extremely rare work youtube) definitely not from work computer. I still find AAM, ccn, and usatoday from work, but they don’t quite allow the same amount of time wasting as facebook and youtube do. Although then you can still facebook from your phone during work, don’t sit at your desk staring at your cellphone. Only pull it out when you taking a break from your desk and don;t allow those breaks to become super long.

      Overall there are some great suggestions here.

    4. justsomeone*

      +1 for Stayfocusd. I used it a lot when I found myself doing the same thing as the OP. (I still use it a lot, even now, actually)

    5. One of the Sarahs*

      Yes, I came here to say the same thing! I think it’s wonderful you’re recognising this about yourself, OP, and having a personal ban on your distraction sites might also be able to hep you zoom in on the background issues, as Alison suggests. Go Team OP!

    6. cleo*

      I like LeechBlock on Firefox – you can create different block lists with different parameters. I have one list of timewasters like Facebook that are automatically blocked and another list of professional timewasters that will be blocked after 5 minutes – every 30 minutes. So I’m basically giving myself 5 minutes to read AAM after 30 minutes of productive work.

      1. Honeybee*

        LeechBlock was the only way I could get through my dissertation, lol. I had a handful of time-wasting sites on there, would just start up a 3-hour session and BAM, work done. Turns out that when I don’t have something to procrastinate with online I resort to doing actual work.

  9. LawBee*

    There’s a difference between motivation and discipline. Motivation is external, untrustworthy, and really doesn’t exist. But discipline comes from within, and is what will get you through those days where you don’t want to work.

    1. Koko*

      My favorite motivational poster quote:

      “Some people say motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing. That’s why we recommend it daily.”

    2. Honeybee*

      Well, there is such a thing as intrinsic motivation – when you do something simply because you like it and you want to, not because of any external rewards you’re expecting (or punishments as, it were). But yes, if there are tasks for which you have no intrinsic motivation, discipline is what’s going to move you forward until you get your motivation back.

  10. Folklorist*

    I’m terrible at this as well, and definitely needed to read this today! ::Slinking off AAM and going to do something now::

  11. Serin*

    To build on the idea of the online coding class: What about thinking of yourself as a person who’s pursuing continuing education as an independent study? You could set yourself a long-term educational goal (intermediate competency in coding, continuing foreign language study, enough PowerPoint proficiency to be able to help with the prep work for those exhibitions).

    If you know anyone who’s in education, you could pay them (or “pay” them by buying them lunch every now and then) to be your “independent study supervisor.” Tell them you want them to demand a curriculum plan now, and then demand monthly status updates later.

    I can tell you that a future employer would probably drool if given a cover letter that said, “In addition to my designated tasks, I also independently increased my language proficiency to X level and taught myself to code.”

  12. (different) Rebecca*

    Lists and specific short term goals on those lists. Example: Between 9 and 10, I will answer all emails that are more than 3 days old. Between 10 and lunch I will ensure that x, y, and z files are up to date. Make the time allotments as small or large as you need to, but ensure that there’s no dawdling time, and that they’re realistic (neither shorter than the time you need to get the things done, nor so long that you blast through the task and are left waiting around for your next one.)

    1. One of the Sarahs*

      I have developed a real talent for doing mind-numbing tasks by breaking things way down, and turning it into microgoals. “I won’t go for a cup of tea until I’ve finished A-G”, or whatever. It really helped turn my short-attention-span into super-focused admin fiend.

      1. (different) Rebecca*

        It’s amazing how well this works. I’m working on a PhD and there are days when the workload is overwhelming. Breaking it down into either small tasks or 15 minute increments ensures that I meet a lot of goals.

        1. One of the Sarahs*

          Yeah, and giving myself permission to do X when I get through this block is super-helpful to me – 9 times out of 10 I hit the mini-goal, and go straight into the next one, without my ‘reward’, feeling really good abut myself!

  13. Camellia*

    “I am way too comfortable using my work computer for Youtube and a host of other non-work tasks.”

    You need to stop this. Now. A small office like this doesn’t have an IT department and controls, blocks, etc. for what you can view/do on your computer, but larger offices will. They can and will review your browser history and can calculate how much time you spend on non-work-related sites or tasks. This can seriously impact your reputation and can have other consequences up to and including losing your job.

    Since these controls don’t exist for your computer now, how do you impose them on yourself? I suggest you imagine what your boss would think if s/he DID check your browser and computer history and logs. If s/he could see specifically that you spent 2 hours and 37 minutes on YouTube yesterday, would you feel embarrassed or proud of that fact? Pretend every day that your boss will see a record of what you did on your computer and then make your choices based on that.

  14. Ella*

    I also recommend the RescueTime app. With the free version, you track the time you spend on various websites and tasks. You can categorize websites as “Very Distracting” or “Productive,” and track how long you’re spending on them. With the paid version, you can also block the websites you set as distracting for blocks of time.

    It’s pricey (I think $9 a month), but if you search, you may be able to find coupon codes. I found a half off coupon, and was able to get a membership for $36 for the year. It’s been worth it, both in tracking time, and in blocking sites when I need the extra push.

    1. TootsNYC*

      If you’re barred from adding applications, etc., to your computer (by the IT setup), is it possible to still use those sorts of applications?

    2. OP, the time wasting admin*

      I really like the sound of this one!

      I found one of my problems to be that sure, Youtube is obviously a Stayfocusd blockable site, but what about google searches about professionally related tasks that slowly meander into tons of wasted time? AAM is a troubling one for me too. I am currently using my lunch hour, but know that there have been days when I spent too long a time reading sites like AAM and professional development articles.

      I think I time tracker rather than a time blocker my really help :). Thank you!

  15. Dan*

    Daily to-do’s as suggested are a good idea. I waste time during the day, but I also have a “I don’t go home until X is done.” I’m salaried exempt, so that works for me.

    For motivation, “rainy day” or “hobby projects” are huge. They’re awesome, because lots of times the whole project is completely under your control. (If it was “high priority” your boss would care about a lot more of it. No deadline = low priority = boss isn’t thinking about it too much = you get to think a lot about it.) You get to decide the strategy, implementation, and what success looks like. Doing this well is a huge motivator.

    1. Koko*

      Yes! And if your hobby project can measurably improve some metric the company cares about – whether it’s customer satisfaction, order processing time, the bottom line, etc. – you’ll be signaling to your boss that you’re invested in the company’s success and eager to take on greater responsibility. Things that bosses look for when determining whether to promote you.

  16. Alistair*

    Alison mentioned Project Ownership above, and that really hits home for me. Yeah, I want to finish Boss projects correctly, on time, etc. But my own client, own proposal, own project? I go above and beyond on that every time. Somehow it feels far more important. If you could get into that mentality for at least some of your projects, it could help on the boss free days; it certainly does for me. Good luck!

  17. Former Retail Manager*

    OP doesn’t say if she is hourly or salary. If she is salary and works 50 hour weeks at least a couple of weeks a month, with very little “goof off time” and say 30 hours the other two weeks of the month, that still averages out to 40 hours per week or 160 hours per month and would allow her 2 hours to surf the net or whatever daily during the 30 hour weeks. If that is the case, and that’s a big if, then I wouldn’t view it as a big deal. Some jobs are just that way….you work really hard during some weeks and others are easier.

    However, if you’re not salary or you have more “goof off time” than I’ve estimated, then Alison’s advice and some of the suggestions above, about apps and such, are fantastic ones. And although most small companies aren’t gonna bother to check your browsing history, I’ve known a couple of people who worked for very small companies that did, and also had keystroke logger software installed, and the employees were never told about it or warned. (which I personally think is unfair.) Paranoia, paranoia, everybody’s coming to get you…..

    I’m not saying this to scare you, but just so that you’ll be aware that they could do that if they wanted to.

    1. OP, the time wasting admin*

      I’m hourly!

      Thanks for your advice. I used to be a little bit more worried about being monitored (although I know that I should avoid the behavior because its wrong, not because I’ll get in trouble for it), but I’m pretty sure that’s not the case for us. The admin two hires before me actually bookmarked tons of irrelevant sites to the admin computer and didn’t bother to remove them before leaving, and I recently taught my boss about incognito mode – which he’d never heard of… because he was using IE. I don’t think IT checks are going to happen anytime soon, but I will be sure to be careful.

  18. JoAnna*

    If you use Google Chrome, there is an extension called StayFocusd that will block certain websites if you are on them more than a set amount of time.

  19. Government Worker*

    Are you also feeling disconnected from your boss while he’s out on these trips? The one thing I can imagine bringing up with the boss is the idea of some sort of more regular check-in. Maybe you could send your boss and email at the end of each day that he’s out that has items that you need input on listed first, then a couple of bullet points or sentences with updates from the office and notes on what you did that day.

    So it might be “Person A wants to schedule a meeting. Should that be next week or do you want to push it to the week after? Client B’s check came today, so they’re current, and I made follow-up calls to clients C and D since they’re past due. I spent most of today on March financials, but I hope to wrap that up tomorrow morning and spend the afternoon on the layout for the year-end report.”

    Having even that little bit of accountability each day has been helpful for me in other circumstances. Your boss might or might not go along with it, but it can also be good for him to keep slightly better tabs on what’s going on while he’s out, and in a nice summary form.

    1. fposte*

      I was thinking about something like this–goals that you want to have met by the time the boss has returned, and an inventory of what got done (for yourself–the boss presumably figures it’s all happening at some point anyway).

    2. OP, the time wasting admin*

      I think I might start taking this route of action. I’ve tried it before but felt it wasn’t worth the effort, but I agree its a good self-checking accountability tool.

      I work in a Japanese company, and while our office is meant to have American working culture, my boss spent many years in Japan and the influence is strong. They write TONS of reports. Monthly reports, trip reports, sales reports, presentation reports – many, many reports. Many don’t even get read. My boss doesn’t enforce the reports rule but it’s pretty clear that he loves reports, on the off chance that he ever needs to refer to your work to see what you did, when. Keeping that in mind, while I don’t think it will make a particular difference to him, I think he wouldn’t mind if I sent him a mini-report of what I did via email at the end of every day or few days while he is gone. I am often good about directing questions his way when its called for or categorizing things that can be addressed before he leaves or after he returns, but I might start making mini task reports just to keep myself accountable and in check.

  20. Charityb*

    I’m wondering if it would help if the boss and the LW established a long-term project that the OP could work on during ‘slack’ times that would be enjoyable or interesting. For example, that website design idea sounds like it is something that could theoretically take a long time but it doesn’t sound especially time-sensitive. I think if the OP had a “go to” task to work on it would be easier than trying to think up something to do, which is something that in and of itself takes a lot of energy when you don’t have guidance. Kind of like a high-tech, “if you can lean, you can clean” but hopefully more enjoyable for the OP.

    1. Honeybee*

      I agree with that, but depending on the OP’s personality and work habits the slack project should maybe be short- or medium-term (a few weeks or months). I know I can sometimes get discouraged if my slack time project is too long-term because I feel like I’m not making any progress on it. So either the project should have some short-term interim deliverables or the whole thing should be able to be wrapped up fairly quickly (or maybe iterative, which is really short-term interim deliverables but the continuation of the project is dependent upon these).

  21. Adonday Veeah*

    I feel your pain, LW! It’s very hard for me to focus when I’m by myself. I have my own office, and it really is difficult for me to get stuff done. For some reason I am much more productive when my assistant is in my office filing, even though she’s completely ignoring me and focusing on her tasks. I’m the same way at home. It’s much easier for me to get my housework done if a friend or family member is simply sitting on my sofa watching TV than when I’m alone. I know this about myself, and so I plan for it.

    One thing that helps me is to have a “daily” list (stuff I must do every single day, no matter what) as well as a longer to-do list that varies by project or deadline. And I ask myself what I want to come back to when I come into the office tomorrow — a pile of undone projects, or a clean slate? Then I give myself that — like a present. This works for home, too. I want to come home to a made bed and a picked-up house, so those are my morning projects. I want to wake up to a clean kitchen and washed dishes, so I do those things before I go to bed. At work, I want all my immediate to-dos on a list, so I update that list before I go home every night. The list keeps me focused.

    My sister is visiting me right now. She has diagnosed Adult ADD and is medicated for it, but also attends therapy sessions where she’s taught coping skills. I’m discovering that, although I am nowhere near her category of dysfunction, I do have similar traits. I’m learning from her some very good skills.

    I am very good at meeting deadlines (the tighter the better) but I suck at longer term goals and big projects. I MUST break them down into more immediate steps (and put those steps on my to-do list) if I have any hope of getting them done. Big, amorphous goals do not work for my brain, and I am easily distracted by the more “immediate” issues of life. I’m learning what works for my brain.

    This is no different than leaving your keys on a hook by the front door, or writing down an item on a shopping list when you are about to run out. They are coping skills that help you function. You need to learn what works for you. You are young, and it may take a few tries for you to figure stuff out, but it will be very helpful for you to do that and those skills will serve you for the rest of your life.

    I don’t know you, but I’d like to suggest that this is perhaps not a failing on your part, but simply how your brain works. That is most likely not going to change. What has to change is how you work with what you have. Honor your process (there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just not the way most people work), and learn ways to work with it so that you can get stuff done without having to be different than who you are. There are ways!

    Good luck to you, LW!

  22. Argh!*

    Some people are more externally-motivated, and they are great customer-oriented people to have on a staff. Some are more internally motivated and they are great coders, engineers, artists, etc. But… no job is 100% one way or the other and we all have to learn to behave on the opposite end for part of our job.

    If you absolutely have to have that external motivation, you could ask your boss what his priorities are for when he returns. Then create intermediate deadlines for yourself for those things to be sure they are done & done correctly.

    I have supervised people who don’t do squat when I’m not there and that’s one of my pet peeves. It’s *MORE* important for that person to be working when I’m not there, not less!

  23. Silver Radicand*

    I have downloaded an extension for chrome just to block a particular website I found particularly distracting. It has helped to break the habit of going there and staying there for a while. At this point I rarely even try , but it is is definitely helpful in keeping my time going to productive things.

    P.S. If you need more to do, I second the suggestion to learn to code. CodeAcademy has some pretty good free resources and lessons for several programming languages.

    1. OP, the time wasting admin*

      I was looking into Treehouse! Maths and CS were not exactly my forte but I’m hoping I glean enough background to improve our pretty atrocious website.

  24. jm*

    I see a lot of myself in this post — in the lack of things to do — my boss travels several times a year, usually leaving me with a few projects that I finish quickly. Then, the rest of the time, I do a fair amount of web browsing…

    But I’ve come to realize that in my role, I’m the face and voice of the office…the physical presence…so sometimes me just being here physically to answer the phone, or greet a visitor, counts as work. I don’t necessarily need tasks to complete to count the day as productive. Just being here counts. Of course, if my boss gives me assignments, I’m johnny on the spot getting them done, but I don’t feel guilty anymore about having nothing to do. It’s like being a watchdog….you just sit and wait for something to happen, and handle it when it does happen.

    Of course, OP, if your boss wouldn’t be happy knowing you are just a watchdog while he/she is away, definitely come up with a list of long-term projects or professional development to tackle. Coursera has a lot of interesting (free) business-related classes.

    1. OP, the time wasting admin*

      It’s also been hinted to me that one of my important job roles is the watchdog as well! Since we are a more niche, B2B products company, our call volume is not too high, but I try to remind myself that having someone at the office and not having to close it is part of my job description.

      The previous person in my role who trained me let me know that the admin before her logged a TON of overtime hours, but left a lot of random browsing bookmarks on the admin computer. Apparently she made herself look really busy when the bulk of her job was filling out pointless excels that my predecessor streamlined to be more efficient. Since then, it seems that the boss is not sure exactly how much workload is appropriate for my role…

  25. Manager*

    As someone who has suffered from ADD my whole life, I feel your pain. You might want to check with your doctor to see if you might have something similar. There are both drug and therapy based treatments.

  26. Hannah*

    I don’t have the exact same problem (my boss isn’t located in my office anyway) but similar. The majority of my work is task based, where the job to be done and the timeline to do it are clearly defined. And I am good at that. When there’s a slow period, or I’m given a more general idea for a side project, I get stuck. I feel like I need those limits and deadlines to work around, otherwise I don’t feel like I have any “real” work to do, and I start procrastinating.

    I was explaining this to someone recently and they suggested “just make them up if you need them”. A lightbulb totally went off for me! Over the past few weeks, I have actually made progress with multiple initiatives I’m doing on the side of my main work, because I made up my own parameters for the projects, and scheduled them on my own calendar. The parameters can always change later, but it really helped me get going. Maybe I shouldn’t have to trick myself, but hey, it worked! It was such good advice for me.

  27. Izzy*

    Tim Urban has written several entertaining and helpful articles on procrastinating on his Wait But Why blog. You can Google him or Why Procrastinators Procrastinate (the first article) next time you have some time on your hands.

  28. pomme de terre*

    If the nature of your job truly is feast or famine, try to find stuff to do during your “famine” times that will make the “feast” stuff more bearable. Try to knock out timesuck tasks that can be done in advance, or learn a skill or set up a system that will make the “feast” days go more smoothly.

    Also, while you don’t want to be a helpless layabout, it’s also OK to use slower days to mentally reset and make sure you’re ready to rock on the busy days. Getting some busywork tasks out of the way really is a great help in these cases. You’re setting yourself up for success on the busy days. It’s the professional equivalent of cooking up a big batch of meals on the weekend to eat throughout the coming week.

    All the advice about to-do lists is also good. If you’re having trouble getting your arms around those big long-term projects (“Update the website” or “clean out the storeroom”), break it down into little pieces that are quantifiable. Research 10 vendors for website design, or clean out two shelves, during a slow week.

    1. Doriana Gray*

      Also, while you don’t want to be a helpless layabout, it’s also OK to use slower days to mentally reset and make sure you’re ready to rock on the busy days.

      This. I do this because I simply can’t work at 100% capacity all day every day. That way leads to burnout for me.

  29. TheAssistant*

    Hey OP! I feel your pain – my first three years post-college were all spent with absentee bosses (one remote, one without any inclination to do any sort of check-in on my work, one in constant back-to-back meetings, etc.). Here are some of my tips for keeping procrastination at bay:
    1.) Use time tracking software (like Toggl, which is free) – I became more productive when I saw exactly how unproductive I was being. I basically played a game with myself in which I tried to beat the previous day’s tracked time.
    2.) Create a to-do list for the next day before leaving, and rank it in order of priority. Include immediate and long-term stuff on there. Draw a line under the things you absolutely don’t want to leave without doing – that way, you can be productive but “reward” yourself with a little downtime if you fly through the important things. During especially busy times, I wouldn’t bother including the long-term stuff. But during slower times I would include a chunk of a long-term thing so I felt like I was making progress
    3.) If you have business goals you’re measured on during the year, consider creating a Professional Development goal (or list of goals). That way you hold yourself accountable to professional growth and, personally, I always found the professional development stuff more interesting than my more mundane work, and thus I was more likely to finish it

  30. OwnedByTheCat*

    I’m TOTALLY suffering from this right now. I’m in my notice period (six more weeks) and am really having a hard time not checking out. I don’t want to screw my coworkers or end up with a bad reference, but it is challenging for me to stay on top of things!

    1. CoffeeLover*

      +1 for struggling to not check out. I just past my performance review period, I’m planning to move to Europe in 6 months for my SO (not soon enough!), and I’m stuck on a boring project. I’ve also come to realise my current job/career path may not be right for me. Every day I dream of quitting early and being unemployed for the summer :P.

  31. Jessica*

    I’m a list person. I have to do this occasionally to fight the urge to procrastinate. Write down the minimum you expect yourself to accomplish for the day. It doesn’t have to be conquering the world, just the minimum. (It beats nothing all to heck) I find that once I get started I do get into it and may get more than my minimum requirement accomplished. It feels productive and it doesn’t mean I didn’t check a news website all day long. It means I practiced self-discipline and made headway on my overall goals. :-)

  32. One of the Sarahs*

    Other people have advocated lists, and one thing I find super-useful is to have short-, medium- and long-term lists in different places in my note book, so if I think of something in a busy period that I can’t/don’t need to do right now, I’ve got it noted, so I can come back to it in slack times (this can be anything from big projects to “sort out the staff kitchen” or whatever).

  33. EE Lady*

    I have two specific suggestions of things that have helped me in the past with my procrastination/motivation problems:
    1. Get a good planner that lets you set daily, weekly, and monthly goals. I like the Panda Planner. You can take something that’s big and a little overwhelming (like your web design project) and break it into more manageable chunks and chip away at it. It also helps you assign priorities and focus on getting the more important things done.
    2. Commit yourself to working for a short period of time (like 20 minutes) before you take a break. This forces you to get started on a task without feeling like you have to spend the entire day working on it, so you can kind of trick yourself. Often after 20 minutes, I’m into it and won’t actually take a break until an hour or more in. They have Pomodoro timers online that you can google.
    Good luck! It’s a good sign that you’re not satisfied being unmotivated.

  34. Jill*

    I have this problem too. I brought a digital oven timer to work. I make my task list in the morning. Then I set the timer for 20 minutes where I focus on work tasks. When the timer beeps, I set it for 4 minutes where I can do whatever – take a quick walk, check personal e-mail, read a personal interest blog, clip coupons and make my grocery list, whatever. When the four minutes are up, it’s back on for 20 more of work and so on.

    First, it’s amazing what you can accomplish in 20 minutes and second, most times I get so into that task that I skip the 4 minute free time because I would actually rather finish the task. It’s silly but it totally works on those blah kind of days.

  35. Competent Commenter*

    OP, I too have struggled with both of those things, and I was self-employed for nearly 20 years so I was my own boss! Only recently did I close my business and start working for someone else.

    Other commenters have given you practical tips, but I wanted to share what my root causes are: seasonal depression and ADHD. My worst seasonal depression month is January, but I start getting depressed in about October if I don’t use a light box daily for 30 minutes, and I have to use it until the end of March. I’m like a different person during those periods. I’m thin-skinned, easily discouraged, cry easily, depressed, and highly anxious. Due to the recession I hadn’t had an employee for about five years, but in my last year of business I hired someone from October to February. During the period when I was struggling with my depression, there were many January days in particular where I was unable to do anything but surf the net, except for the most straightforward projects with deadlines…but once my employee walked in the door, I’d get back to work. Just her being there made a huge difference. If I could have afforded to, it would have made sense to have an employee there full time just for that reason alone.

    I believe that my recently diagnosed ADHD is also a factor in this. It’s hard for me to be motivated when there aren’t deadlines or outside pressure. I’ve always been very embarrassed by that—it’s really been a secret shame. Now that I realize it’s part of a cluster of symptoms I can approach it with less internal judgement and come up with solutions.

    You may have neither of these problems, but I wanted you to know that I could have written your post as far as behavior patterns go, so it’s something to think about. At any rate, I really sympathize!

  36. ChelseaNH*

    This is the time to develop good work habits. I’ve been reading “Better than Before” by Gretchen Rubin about habit formation, and it has lots of insight about not just habit formation but all the different ways people think and feel about habits. Definitely not a one-size-fits-all approach.

  37. OP, the time wasting admin*

    OP here! Thanks AAM, for posting, and to all of the thoughtful commenters giving me a wide variety of advice.

    I just want to clarify that I am getting the timely admin and accounting tasks done on schedule, and have not been reprimanded for lateness except for when I was still learning the tasks in my first couple of months (more a knowledge cap than a motivation one). In fact, while I know my boss appreciates any effort to go above and beyond or pump out work, it’s not a very strict office. The 3rd worker in our office, the sales manager, has a bit of a childlike streak and he brought his remote-control Millenium Falcon drone to the office to play with during breaks… and downloaded GTA 5 on the PS3 he brought to the office before they left on their last week-long sales exhibition, telling me I could feel free to play if I get bored. I’m sure that in reality I should respect my company and the principle of professionalism and block sites like Youtube 100%, but I feel like “fun” and unmonitored breaks are the norm in our office, as long as work gets done.

    I do, however, hear the reputation and ethics concerns loud and clear – since some of you asked, I am an hourly worker, and I do feel guilty knowing that I consistently spend some of my hours websurfing. I actually did look around and find StayFocusd, and I like the idea of the time tracker extension that will actually tell me how much time I’m spending on what sites. I don’t think my problem is ADD related specifically – my mind does fly from place to place, and it contributes to me getting side-tracked, but I feel like balancing the freedom, information, work, and play that comes with the internet is a crucial part of people who are currently joining the working force in their 20s. I will try to find a healthy behavioral pattern that works for me.

    I also appreciate the advice from fellow people who’ve been in lower-skill or desk jobs that have also faced this dilemma! I guess it’s the nature of a job like admin assistant when the office is empty or slow. There is little to assist. It’s an odd in-between feeling of TECHNICALLY you did all your work so your wasted time is not wrong… but at the 4th hour mark of web-surfing you seriously feel like you’re wasting the company dime, and your own time.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      freedom, information, work, and play that comes with the internet is a crucial part of people who are currently joining the working force in their 20s


      Everyone balances those things, not just people in their 20s. I worry a bit from what you’ve said that you might have a skewed idea of what that balance should look like, especially since it sounds like you’re in an unusually lax office! (And maybe that you think that 20somethings can get away with more of that — which they really can’t. This stuff isn’t age-based.)

      Keep in mind that whatever habits you get into now are ones you’re likely to carry to your next job — and your next job is not likely to be this lax. You’d be doing yourself a real service, I think, if you operated as if you were in a more typical environment.

      1. OP, the time wasting admin*

        Oh, I’m sorry about that. You’re right, I realize that balance is not specific to my age.

        I was trying to address specifically advice from those who mentioned attention disorders. I wasn’t sure if getting on the computer and getting derailed seemed very ADD, since work computers are usually kept separate from any play sites. I noticed in my high school and college years that there was a significant increase in the blending of work and lifestyle and pleasure lines with social media and laptops and cellphones, and wanted to make it clear that I wanted to address it as a behavioral pattern, and didn’t think I had any attention problem specifically. I honestly wasn’t trying to say I should be allowed to get away with it!

        Taking your advice to heart though, I think I’ve now overstepped the limit of my lunch hour, and will return to work with more professional guidelines in mind.

    2. Kyrielle*

      If you need to fill in gaps, perhaps filling it in with books/websites/free online courses related to your field might also help?

  38. Ultraviolet*

    Here are two things that help me–though I have to acknowledge that I’m still a terrible procrastinator.

    1. Don’t take a break without knowing exactly what you’re going to do when you start working again. Having only a vague plan makes it really hard for me to get back to work, so I get really specific here. “After I browse Ask A Manager for a little bit I’ll get up and go over to X cabinet and look for a fastener to attach the teapot to the other teapot metaphor.”

    2. Once or twice a week, sketch a rough outline of the things you think you can accomplish in the next three days. This is just a specific example of the idea of breaking down a big goal into smaller ones, but this particular way of doing so really helps me stave off that feeling of “There’s so much to do, how much difference does it make if I start now instead of in an hour?”

  39. h.cowl*

    This was me 5 years ago in my first job out of college! I found that asking for more work didn’t help, since I was usually given the type of work that made me most anxious and most likely to procrastinate. It took me several different jobs and 4 years to figure out that it was *okay* to like a certain type of work, and look specifically for a job that was made up of that type of work. I had to take a step back in my career to get the right job but it’s so much better now that I’m doing work I’m motivated by. My two cents!

  40. C*

    Do you think it might be a case of being in the wrong field? I started working in my industry 2 years ago after years and years of trying to break into it, and I find that I’m 1,000% more engaged with it than any other type of work I’ve done before. I absolutely love it and coming up with projects and ways to contribute is like second nature to me now – I can’t get enough of it. Whereas before, the work I was doing would just be “eh I’m doing fine, whatever.”

  41. AnotherHRPro*

    The advice that works for me is to start each day by identify what I want to accomplish that day, put them in priority and then START NOW. That may seem simple, but sometimes you just need to tell yourself to start now. The list then helps you focus on what you need/want to accomplish.

  42. Oignonne*

    I use goal setting and organization to help when my motivation is low. Start with a long-term goal and work backwards. What is a career goal that you have? What do you need to do at this job to make progress towards that? What do you need to do this month to succeed in this job? What do you need to do this week, or today to achieve that month goal? Divide into as many levels/timeframes as is helpful to you.

    When you lay things out like this, it can help you stay motivated, because you can see how what you do on a daily basis can affect things long term. You may dread doing Task X at work tomorrow, but completing Task X is taking a small step towards getting a decent reference out of this employer.

  43. Anxa*

    So this probably won’t be helpful at all, but when I slip into this mode, it’s helpful for me to find time chunks. I’m a marathon worker. I can’t do 20 minutes here, 20 minutes there. I know, I know… I’m setting myself up for real problems, but I take a long time to switch gears on a mentally foggy day. I end up putting projects off when I feel like there’s not enough time to get them done properly.

    That means I find the biggest block of time in my day (or the next few days) and I have to block that out do my most immersive task. That’s my non-negotiable with myself.

  44. Ashley*

    I struggle with this too when my current tasks are light. One thing that has worked for me is the Pomodoro technique. If you have some of those longer term projects to work on, just set a Pomodoro timer. You’re basically telling yourself, Ok, just work on this for x minutes, then you can spend x minutes goofing around on the internet. Adjust the intervals for how much time you want/need to spend on the special projects! Sometimes it’s easier to say, well, I’m not going to FINISH this, but I can force myself to just work on it for the next 45 minutes. And before you know it, you’re wrapped up in it and don’t want to switch! Won’t happen every time you’re on a task interval, but sometimes it will and that makes it effective.

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